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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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A Dispatch From the Present Dystopia

The personal finance columnist at The New York Times shows us we're living inside a nightmare, though it's not clear if he recognizes it.

January 24, 2021
 
 

I do not think that New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber intends for his article, “High School Grades Could Be Worth $100,000. Time to Tell Your Child?” to be an indictment of a truly dysfunctional and damaging system, but that’s how I read it.

The article is an excerpt from Lieber’s new book, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make.

The book is targeted to the audience of middle-class (primarily white) folks for whom college is viewed as a necessity and a right, but who have been increasingly squeezed by a system that has made college more and more costly, aka, readers of The New York Times. Lieber aims to help people who have the social capital and wherewithal to plan a significant portion of their lives around the child’s future college matriculation.

That Lieber’s book’s subtitle -- “biggest financial decision …” -- is accurate should be cause for concern all by itself, but if we really want to stare into the dystopian abyss of the present, the published excerpt will do just fine.

In it, Lieber provides a capsule review of the “merit aid” phenomenon, the mechanism by which schools attempt to lure desirable students who will enhance the institutional picture of prestige, while also trying to optimize tuition revenue for the sake of the bottom line. The consequences of this dance are thoroughly covered by a 2018 report from New America’s Stephen Burd, “Undermining Pell: Volume IV: How the Privatization of Higher Education Is Hurting Low-Income Students.”

The report shows how the average net price has climbed significantly over time. Merit aid is a significant player in this dynamic. As Burd says, “Over the last 20 years, state disinvestment and institutional status-seeking have worked together, hand in hand, to encourage public colleges and universities to adopt the enrollment management tactics of their private college counterparts. For many of these schools, that has meant using their institutional aid dollars strategically in order to lure affluent out-of-state students to their campuses, rather than spend these funds on in-state students who can’t afford to go to college without help.”

Lieber covers some of this as well, noting how schools use consultants and algorithms to track student behavior to see how welcoming they may be to institutional “come-ons.” “Financial aid optimization” is now a significant part of operations at many schools, and if you’re wondering if this has anything to do with the teaching and learning mission, I think we all know the answer to that question.

As if we were uncertain about who this advice is geared toward, the illustrative parent lives in Bel Air, Md., and with her daughter visited 30 schools. The daughter wrote 90 essays “in pursuit of a full-tuition merit scholarship.”

Lieber and the mom are both aware of the “irony” that “If you have money, you can get money,” but whether or not we should consider doing anything about this issue is largely unexamined. The implication is that while this may be regrettable, it is also reality, so what are you going to do, other than tell your eighth grader what’s up so they can be well-positioned when it comes to time to make that biggest decision of their financial lives?

The story ends with a quote from a financial aid director at Santa Barbara City College who is confronting what to say to her own daughter, who says, “I’m dreading it. These are the same questions I’ve been asking for 20 years, and in my naivete, I thought we’d have fixed some of this by now.”

The most distressing part of that kicker is the implication that we are somehow powerless over the system we find ourselves trapped within.

I reject this implication in great detail in Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, in which I make the case that we could, check that, we must choose differently. I couldn’t ask for a better illustration of my thesis that we are at an endpoint for the current era of higher education and we must change in fundamental ways than Lieber’s article and book. Of course, my book is not going to be featured in The New York Times, not that I’m bitter about it.[1]

We can pair Lieber’s book with Jeffrey Selingo’s Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions as texts that aim to empower the already most powerful. Both books look to be meticulously reported, carefully written and highly illuminating, and yet I cannot understand how we can sit idly by and not respond to what they’re actually illuminating.

Pardon my French, but this shit is messed up, and it’s messed up in ways that are an existential threat to the entire system of higher education, particularly public higher education. This isn’t arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, it’s diving under the water after the ship is already sunk and believing you can move into one of the staterooms.

I’m sure Lieber’s book can help preserve some measure of advantage for the already advantaged, but even that will ultimately erode as well. Meanwhile, the disadvantaged will fall further behind. The interventions we reserve for students without parents who can take them to see 30 schools, such as nudges to apply for financial aid, have had precisely zero impact, as shown by a hot-off-the-presses study of over 800,000 students.

As to whether or not it’s a good idea to make the pressure students already feel around academic success even more explicit, I note that the same day as Lieber’s excerpt saw the publication of a story in the Times about a suicide cluster among students in Clark County, Nev., which some are linking to absence of in-person schooling, and note that we’ve had other suicide clusters in high schools, such as the one in Palo Alto, Calif., which was linked to students feeling overwhelmed by the competition to get into an elite college.

When are we going to try to get back to a world where going to college isn’t the biggest financial decision a family is going to make, as it was for generations, including mine?

How much damage will we continue to accept in the name of preserving a system that confers advantage on the “right” groups, but is clearly harmful in the aggregate, including to the privileged?

Can we at least start having the right conversations?


[1] I’m bitter about it.

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